July 29th, 2009

Health care reform: Obama’s leadership skill set is lacking

President Obama is not a leader.

By that I don’t just mean that I disagree with his agenda, or that I think he often lies to the American people, or that he’s not inspirational (although all of those statements do describe my position). I mean that, even from the point of view of a supporter on the Left, he seems to be an extreme disappointment at the moment in terms of getting his (and their) agenda passed.

One of the things that’s led me to this conclusion is that I’ve been doing a bit of reading on blogs on the Left and seeing the reactions there towards his strategy on health care reform. For the most part, commenters are angry at him because they feel he’s deserted the cause of single payer. To these people, single payer—despite Obama’s continuing to speak as though it’s important to him—is not being fought for sufficiently. They see single payer as not just one among many methods by which health care reform might be accomplished, but as the obligatory and necessary heart of the matter.

I’ve not seen their reasons for this primacy of single payer specifically articulated; it’s just assumed and implied. But one motivation seems to be hatred of private insurance and the profits therein; it’s a form of greedy capitalism, after all, and must be expunged from our national shame. Another seems to be idealization of the European and Canadian approaches, and a desire to emulate those countries. But whatever the reasons may be, there is a fair amount of rage at Obama, as well as at Congress and the Senate in particular, about the possible compromises being hammered out that eliminate the public option.

Some of that sentiment takes a form that would be familiar to anyone on the Right who has railed against the RINOs: throw the bums (in this case, the Blue Dogs in the House and various moderates Democrats in the Senate) out! Let’s elect us some real Progressives next time!

This plan is a bit shortsighted, since these people are from fairly conservative districts and would be likely to be replaced by Republicans if the Democratic Party mounted candidates sufficiently “progressive” to please its Left in the next election. But the point is that people on the Left are that angry, and a great many are saying the same about Obama as well: what’s the use of voting for him next time if he can’t get anything done?

I have a larger interest in another question, however: why can’t he get this done, considering what huge majorities he has in Congress? That question could be rendered moot of course (and my answers incorrect) if he ends up getting it done after all. But at the moment it looks as though a somewhat watered-down version of health care reform is all that will be passed.

The answer as to why it’s been so hard for Obama is one the Left don’t want to hear: America is not in favor of the solution they want, or the one Obama is offering. That may not matter to them—after all, they know better than stupid Americans, and we should be wanting what our intellectual and moral superiors on the Left think we should want. But it is certainly a fact that, despite the 2008 election results, America has still not turned sufficiently to the Left for most of these people.

And Obama has been foundering of late as a leader. This should be completely unsurprising—after all, if you look at his history, why would he be a leader? Obama is experienced in several things: campaigning, oratory, community organizing, and professorship. That is his skill set. You can see these elements all at work, big time, during his presidency. When in doubt, he falls back on one or several of them.

But presidents are required to do more. They need to get into specifics. They need to work with Congress. They need to persuade the reluctant. They need to reason, not spin. And they need to produce results. And Obama is bad at all of these, at least so far—thank goodness.

Some on the Left lament that Obama can’t pull an LBJ. Now there was a man who knew how to twist and manipulate and pressure and deal with Congress! LBJ had spent most of his life there, however, and had an acknowledged mastery of the game, legendary even before he became president. And although Obama did come from the Senate rather than a governorship, he was a freshman senator who spent almost no time there, and most of it campaigning. He is a neophyte compared to LBJ and other Washington insiders.

Obama lacks national legislative experience, but he also lacks executive experience, which is a huge part of a presidency. The perception is that he’s flailing around in that regard, unsure how to lead or manage or delegate properly. When in doubt, he falls back on propaganda and oratory.

But he’s having trouble controlling that message, too, as the adoring press becomes a little feistier and the public more demanding of results. Press conferences—as opposed to interviews by obsequious journalists—were never his forte, and as president he’s had to (or chosen to; take your pick) give quite a few so far. They’ve not gone well, especially the last one, which featured vague platitudes and generalities on health care, and the “stupidly” comment that led to Gatesgate.

I for one am glad Obama is turning out to lack leadership skills. Things are bad enough, and I shudder to think how much more of his agenda would have already been passed had he possessed them. Let’s hope he doesn’t learn on the job—unless he wants to lead us to policies that make more sense.

[ADDENDUM: Here's an article that talks about the problem in different terms---that Obama is having trouble delivering his "message," and is showing increasing frustration. For the Left, it seems to be mostly about competing narratives.

And here's a quote on the topic of the Senate compromise vs. single payer, and the Left's attitude:

Speaking of public option vs. co-op, the Finance Committee plan is either going to be the most brilliant piece of triangulation ever, or it's going to open up a fight on the left that is U-G-L-Y. Clearly, the White House is VERY open to a co-op. It is trying hard NOT to bash the public option or show preference to a co-op. But Team Obama definitely has an open mind.]

[ADDENDUM II: Here's an article I just found, with a pretty good summary of the fight on this issue between the hard Left and the liberals in the Democratic Party. And I just read this one by Michael Barone, who seems to pretty much agree with me.]

34 Responses to “Health care reform: Obama’s leadership skill set is lacking”

  1. Daniel in Brookline Says:

    “I like being President… and it turns out I’m pretty good at it.”

    The man’s hubris will, without doubt, come back to haunt him.

    Daniel in Brookline

  2. neo-neocon Says:

    Daniel in Brookline: I sincerely hope so. It never has before, however.

  3. expat Says:

    Commenter David Thomson offered an interesting opinion at Jennifer Rubin’s PJM post today. He says Obama is bored by executive duties. There may be something to this. He has said he is bored by the suburbs and that the work in the Illinois legislature was boring. He seems more comfortable soaring in the rarified air of cloud cuckoo land. I have the feeling that he thought he could delegate to his team of rivals and then return in peace to eating his waffle.

  4. neo-neocon Says:

    expat: Sometimes the things that bore us are the things we aren’t good at and know little about.

  5. I R A Darth Aggie Says:

    The man’s hubris will, without doubt, come back to haunt him.

    Agreed. It may take a while, Neo, so be patient. On the downside, the longer it takes, the harder it will hit, and the more likely it is to damage the country.

  6. expat Says:

    How true. Perhaps Obama has never really applied himself to detail work because then his weaknesses would be visible.

  7. Mrs Whatsit Says:

    With regard to Daniel’s point about hubris catching up with Obama, Neo said, “It never has before, however.” This time, things could well be different. He never had a truly accountable position before. Now he does. The buck never stopped on his desk before. Now, it does. Before, he could always move onward and upward to new achievements, quick, before any mistakes had time to catch up with him. Now, there’s nowhere left to go.

  8. SteveH Says:

    I think the Gates comment was our seeing Obama the narcissist losing his cool when his lack of leadersip got revealed. Hold onto your hats. This is definitely about to get interesting.

  9. Wandriaan Says:

    It doesn’t stop to amaze me how much power the hard left still has in the US. It really is a mystery. After the fall of the Soviet-Union, all the facts that have come out (more than 100 million people murdered by the hard left in one century), how in earth is it possible?
    Is it the fact that so many live in cushy bubbles like Hollywood and the universities, far away from reality, where they can continue to live in irreality without feeling the consequences? While at the same time being in an ideal position to brainwash everyone, especially the young and the disgruntled?
    Or is it the result of secularism? ‘When people stop believing in God, they will not believe in nothing, they will believe in anything’, Chesterton said. When I read about the utter, weird insanity that seems to go on in Hollywood and many US universities I am often reminded of that quote.
    I understand that the Democrat Party was taken over by sixty-craziness. I don’t understand why so many remain crazy four decades later.

  10. Richard Aubrey Says:

    The amazing thing is that zero hasn’t accomplished jack in his life. And of the things some of us might think worth showing–if they were good–he has sealed off, such as his college records.
    I guess I should say it’s amazing that he got elected.
    Anyway, it will be a surprise to a number of people that a guy who has accomplished nothing is having a hard time accomplishing anything in what might be said to be the hardest job in the world.

  11. Old Dad Says:


    Succesful charismatic leaders also have or have acces to excellent management/ executive skills. That’s one of the President’s manifest weaknesses. He truly doesn’t understand the legislative process; he’s bored by the details because he’s too undisciplined to educate himself. “Undisciplined” is an odd word choice, I know, to describe someone who is supposedly in possession of an iron will. But Obama’s discipline is of the totally selfish kind. He’s rigorous in the pursuit of personal glory. Note that his career has flourished without any major or minor professional successes.

    Said another way, he’s energetic in pursuit of personal satisfaction, but lazy in pursuit of the people’s business. Has any President in recent memory partied more, played more golf, spent more cavalierly, dipped more indiscretely at the public trough?

    Obama is spoiled. He is bored by hard work that doesn’t lead to quick personal satisfaction. That explains part of this Adminstration’s insane rush. What doesn’t get done now will never get done. The President will simply lose interest and seek other more immediately gratifying activities–perhaps, wowing the faithful at a faux town hall.

    Meanwhile, the people’s work will be neglected–in his case, thank God.

  12. Occam's Beard Says:

    I’ll reassert my earlier take on Obama: spokesmodel for others.

    From that perspective, all of this makes perfect sense. Of course he’s bored by the job of actually governing, has essentially zero management skills, and prefers the glamor of speechifying and hobnobbing with world potentates: he’s the public face, the presenter, not the prime mover. He’s at home on the runway, showing off the new fall line, not at the desk designing it. Did Billy Mays formulate and manufacture OxiClean, or indeed give a rat’s ass about it? Of course not.

  13. Occam's Beard Says:

    It doesn’t stop to amaze me how much power the hard left still has in the US. It really is a mystery. After the fall of the Soviet-Union, all the facts that have come out (more than 100 million people murdered by the hard left in one century), how in earth is it possible?

    Wandriaan, if you ever figure this out, please explain it to me. It surpasseth all understanding.

  14. Ozyripus Says:

    Obama a leader? Consider one set of details — as neo said:

    “And Obama has been foundering of late as a leader. This should be completely unsurprising—after all, if you look at his history, why would he be a leader? Obama is experienced in several things: campaigning, oratory, community organizing, and professorship.”

    Forgive me nitpicking — granted, at least neo didn’t capitalize “professorship.” Obama never was a Professor; he was a Lecturer, finally even a Senior Lecturer (willing to take very low pay for a long time).

    Most importantly, he was offered entrance into a “tenure track” position THREE TIMES and turned these chances down. He would have had to actually produce something to not get dropped from an Assistant Professorship after 4-5 years, hence loose his social position.

    Even if he would have had a . . . how to put this . . . somewhat less demanding set of standards, he didn’t have the balls to try it. What he apparently wanted, and capitalized on, was a cushy, prestigious “University” position for making political arrangements, not to be a “leading” Law Professor.

    Anyone with a gift for gab, a cool, in-style personality, and willingness to see that all students succeed can do great as a Lecturer. What a wonderfully comfortable place to be the perpetual exciting intellectual. with gullible audiences — including “real” Professors, their wives, graduate students, and religious “leaders.” And, access to foundation funds, not to speak of other connections.

    Most real leaders pay their dues, the pedestrian way. But even craven Congressional politicians can sense the hollowness, as seems to be happening, worldwide.

    Serious question: what does Putin think, and his ilk.

  15. Person of little or no color Says:

    Just some thoughts on the Obama enigma.

    Contrary to what Obama has said about his extradordinary basketball playing skills at Punahou, his coach said he was a benchwarmer.

    Obama never seemed to have a summer job except scooping ice cream briefly. Since he claims to have had little funds, this seems unusual. It might tie in with the spoiled factor.

    The woman who served on Harvard Law Review with him said he did no work and wink wink worked from home. Is this a pattern?

    I once read that when Barack was a community organizer in Chicago, there were jokes that he spent most of his time looking in mirrors.

    Jack Cashill’s articles at AT and on his website have convinced me and many other non-kooks that Bill Ayers wrote much of Dreams. This is so disturbing to the question of who is Obama that I understand why many don’t want to go there.

    When Obama said to Harry Reid, “Harry, I have a gift.” Obama revealed a self-love that was truly astounding. He doesn’t write most of those speeches, but in his mind he does.

  16. gcotharn Says:

    Small Dead Animals, transcribing former Harvard Law Review colleague Carol Platt Liebau (from a radio interview I listened to, so I can confirm Ms. Liebau said this):

    You would think this is the time he’d [Obama] really knuckle down and get to work
    It [Barack's disengagement, or boredom with a job] reminds me a little bit of my experience with him when he was president of the Harvard Law Review. You know, I hesitated to say a lot about this during the campaign because I really thought maybe it wasn’t fair. That maybe, finally, when he got to be President, this would be a job big enough to engage and hold Barack Obama’s sustained interest, because really, is there a bigger job out here?
    [W]hen he was at the HLR you did get a very distinct sense that he was the kind of guy who much more interested in being the president of the Review, than he was in doing anything as president of the Review.
    Barack Obama was nowhere to be seen [around the offices of Harvard Law Review]. Occasionally he would drop in he would talk to people, and then he’d leave again as though his very arrival had been a benediction in and of itself, but not very much got done.

    A separate observation which Liebau made in that radio interview:
    She said Harvard was so liberal that Barack was able to get along with conservatives merely by being polite to them, as opposed to sneering at them and denigrating them. Liebau said she has an odd sense that Barack still believes that interaction with conservatives and Republicans will work that way, i.e. that Barack believes if he is merely polite, and is not overtly rude, that such will constitute a sufficient and successful effort in working with the other side, i.e. Repubs will work with Barack b/c they will grateful he is not rude to them.

    Note, this is similar to Barack’s approach to Iran and to Russia: they will work with us b/c we will be nice to them and they will like us.

  17. waltj Says:

    To answer your questions, Wandriaan, yes, all of the above. The Left in America is not “of the people”, but of the elite, with its gated communities, tenured professorships, and private jets. They don’t live in the world that the rest of us have to, but believe they should conduct social experiments on us to implement their socialist theories because “they care”. At least, that’s what they tell themselves. In reality, it’s about power. Raw, unchained power. Notice how they close they feel to psychopathic murderers like Che Guevara. That’s who they really want to be. So they can have us under their thumbs and have us beg for mercy if we should be so uppity as to defy them.

  18. Baklava Says:

    I DO know what Obama is skilled at ! The art of persuading people how dangerous big government is.

    He has single handedly angered:

    1) Cops

    2) Doctors

    3) The elderly (with Obamacare – they stand the most chance of being hurt)

    4) He is working on angering the young (who voted for him in huge numbers) with his generational theft (saddling a lot of debt onto young people and those who aren’t even born yet)

    5) Jewish people

    6) My leftist boss – who I thought would be hardcore

    7) Kelly King

    8) Independents are at 40% support now



    Let’s add to that list !


  19. soupcon Says:

    He’s the first slacker President.

  20. Oh, bother Says:

    Neo, after you’ve read some of the leftist blogs, do you want to take your brain out and give it a nice, soothing wash? Or is it just me?

  21. Mr. Frank Says:

    I’ve often wondered when Obama works. He seems to be mostly on the road giving speeches when he is not meeting with the press in Washington. What else does he do?

  22. Occam's Beard Says:

    What else does he do?

    Takes dictation.

  23. Gray Says:

    It doesn’t stop to amaze me how much power the hard left still has in the US.

    How could it be any other way when the members of the largest, wealthiest generation in the country’s history were educated as Maoists?

    Whether they know it or not, even the conservative boomers are completely imbued with Maoist ideas and doctrine.

    Of course they don’t know it; anymore than fish know they are wet.

    Tea-parties? Maoist. You cannot defeat the left by adopting their tactics and rhetoric. That’s why no matter how hard the conservatives fight, using leftist tactics, the American brand of leftism (Maoism) gets stronger.

  24. Gringo Says:

    Regarding leadership and management skills of ∅bama: before the election I constructed a metric of previous experience of Senators who became President. There was only one other President besides ∅bama who had the following experience metric: US Senate experience, no US VP experience, no Cabinet experience, no Governor experience, no military experience.

    That would be Warren Harding.

    There is also ∅bama’s executive experience as Chairman of the Annenberg Challenge: throwing around $100 million in research funds without any result.

    As a famous person once said, “What you see is what you get.”

  25. Occam's Beard Says:

    You cannot defeat the left by adopting their tactics and rhetoric. That’s why no matter how hard the conservatives fight, using leftist tactics, the American brand of leftism (Maoism) gets stronger.

    Gray, would you please elaborate? Thanks.

  26. Nolanimrod Says:

    I don’t think so-called liberals, progressives, et al, are against profit. They’re just against other people’s profit because it is unDESERVED. When profit comes their own way, as in Michelle’s $200,000 raise, or Barack’s book royalties, that’s just the universe re-establishing harmony.

    What I find so delectable is this public, or, now, non-profit option to “give the insurance companies competition.”

    Unlike a government entity, which can exist for centuries without ever doing anything right a private company, to survive, has to please its customers in order to make a, er, profit.

    If the company makes a profit it has to pay taxes.

    Some of the taxes will go towards subsidizing its competition, which is trying to put it out of business.

    That’s a better Catch 22 than anything Joe Heller came up with.

  27. Gray Says:

    Gray, would you please elaborate? Thanks.

    Maoism contains the idea that the rural unwashed are the key to overthrowing the bourgie capitalists–that collective action by the non-industrial workers (post-industrial workers in our case) are the vanguard of the Revolution. That demonstrations of the powerless can “speak troof to power”. Community Organizing, Direct-action by the powerless, all that rot….

    So when groups of Republicans protest in groups to appeal to the Great Unwashed to join in solidarity against The System, it only validates the idea of collective protest and validates Maoist ideas. Rugged individualists collectively protesting to gain adherents among the rural populations is not only an oxymoron, its a demonstration of the power of Maoist ideas in modern America.

    The original Tea-party had a point–to economically damage the government who would rapaciously tax. It wasn’t Maoist political theater of the Powerless like the modern “tea-parties” are. The American Revolution was top down–led by those who had the most to lose, not by those at the bottom who had the most to gain.

    Inherent to Maoism is the idea that every personal choice is political; that every deed is either pro-communist or anti-communist: what you wear, what you eat, what you drive, what you drink.

    Sound familiar?

    The personal is not political!

  28. kcom Says:

    So many interesting tidbits in this thread. Here’s my take on some. I hope to do you all justice.

    I think those farther to the left are hardcore for single payer because they are at heart nanny-staters. They want the state to control the people and not the other way around. Publicly they’ll talk about helping people or whatever, but it’s a cover for their deeper (perhaps even subconcious) reason – they don’t believe in individual freedom. It’s too chaotic and scary and dangerous. They only want freedom within bounds they understand (and can control).

    “They’ve not gone well, especially the last one, which featured vague platitudes…”

    My own personal nickname for Obama that I use in my head when I hear him speak (which, mercifully, is not very often) is “Captain Platitude”. Ever since the campaign, that’s what I’ve thought of his speeches. Just a bunch of pretty platitudes. And contrary to some popular opinion, I don’t think he delivers them particularly convincingly. To me, he sounds like an earnest high school debater doing his best to imitate a great speaker, with only partial success.

    ““I like being President… and it turns out I’m pretty good at it.”

    It will be interesting to see the shelf life on this one. It could turn out to be one of the most embarrassing lines ever uttered by a president. Especially if he turns out, as i think is a possibility, to be Carter II.

    As to him being bored, I thought that was a possibility even before the election. He has shown no evidence in his entire life of ever really putting his nose to the grindstone. I’m not surprised he thought his time in the Illinois Senate was a bore. I also thought it was a great possibility that he wanted the title of President much more than he wanted the job (those HLR anecdotes are perhaps instructive). God help us if he can’t bring himself to apply his energies to it properly. I would say it’s not absolutely outside the realm of possibility that if he found the job sufficiently distasteful he might not finish his term (or a possible second term).

    Although I wasn’t leaning toward him anyway, he lost me permanently (not just my vote but my respect) with the whole Jeremiah Wright thing (with an assist from Bill Ayers). Despite the media’s attempt to cover for him, there is no good reason for him to have been in that church for twenty years. Or, to be more accurate, there is no good reason for him to be president if he was comfortable in that church for twenty years. You can’t go to a church like that and be a great uniter and a post-partisan and post-racial president. It’s simply impossible. And the bald-faced lie about Bill Ayer’s just being “a guy in my neighborhood” permanently wrecked any claim to truthfulness he had.

    It’s hard to imagine a two-faced liar, with disdain for most of the people he was elected to lead, and an only occasional acquaintanceship with hard work wouldn’t make a good leader. Who could picture that?

  29. expat Says:


    Don’t forget ACORN. He is still giving support to that lovely group. He must approve of their method of intimidation, which involves turning up the noise volume so high that no one can think.

  30. Wicakte Says:

    I always find it amusing when the Left has to explain all of its problems as “not getting the message right.” They seem to be totally unable to consider the concept that, just possibly, the voters understand what they’re tryingto implement and truly disagree with the programs. Of course, they have to be somewhat restricted in their ability to consider that even some of their PROGRAMS might be WRONG — if they weren’t how would they be able to keep promotin the same old, tired ideas that have never worked anywhere they’ve been tried.
    Since they KNOW capitalism is BAD, the problem has to be that they have convinced the voters, or the voters ae just too stupid to understand the great wisdom of the Elite.
    The fact that, deep down, they understand people really don’t want what they’re promoting is demonstrated by their “stealth” approach to so much legislation, and the fact that candidates like The Won have to pretend to be “centrists” rather than admit their true beliefs while on campaign.
    In spite of that, the Left continues to cling to the idea that their concepts are the correct ones. It’s a religious thing to them, so they can’t reconsider any of their basic ideas.

  31. Maggie's Farm Says:

    Thursday late afternoon links…

    I am headed for the beach and the healthy cold salt water for the weekend. Beach scenery by Theo, who has tons of good stuff posted.
    A. Elmer Crowell’s Cape Cod decoys
    Dalrymple: There is no right to health care.
    Population of illegals is drop…

  32. Keep Up The Pressure « The Reluctant Optimist Says:

    [...] Neo-neo. I have a larger interest in another question, however: why can’t he get this done, considering [...]

  33. J Says:

    I, too, am glad that he is incompetent in getting his plans rammed through. However, 9/11 is too recent in my memory. His weakness invites attack and he does not appear to have any core with which to handle that kind of attack. And the misfits that have agreed to work with him…..well, just look!

  34. Washington Rebel Says:

    Obama’s Inexperience: Weakness Causes War…

    The Empty Vessel Obama has been foundering of late as a leader. This should be completely unsurprising—after all, if you look at his history, why would he be a leader? Obama is experienced in several things: campaigning, oratory, community organizing…

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